I vividly remember the cold winter evening in Delhi at the International Film Festival of India in 1976 when I saw Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080, Bruxelles. It has topped this year’s Sight and Sound magazine’s decennial poll of the ‘Greatest Films of All Time’.
It was thrilling to watch the beautiful Lebanese-French actor Delphine Seyrig nonchalantly and calmly combining housework with part-time prostitution. The long takes (including the famous one of her making a meatloaf over three minutes of screen time) and the stately rhythm and mise en scene opened up new paths in cinematic realism and the portrayal of emotion and experience from a feminine point of view.
Akerman had opened the door for a feminist cinema that soon made way for women masters like Helma Sanders-Brahms, Margarethe von Trotta, Claire Denis and Jane Campion, among others. Maya Deren, Agnes Varda, Vera Chytilova and Marta Meszaros were the pioneers, but Akerman’s film had made feminist cinema into a film movement comparable to the earlier post- war movements such as Italian neorealism and the French new wave. It broke new ground.
I have never had the chance to see Jeanne Dielman again, but it has remained indelibly etched in my memory. Now, this masterwork has been voted as the greatest film of all time by a host of international critics, academics and filmmakers in the most prestigious of movie polls. It has displaced the likes of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) and Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) that had ruled the roost since 1962. The only other film to top the list was Vittorio De Sica’s vastly influential neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves (1948) in the first poll in 1952.
Naturally, I always had different preferences over these chosen films. For instance, I would probably choose a Roberto Rossellini film instead of Bicycle Thieves; or North by Northwest over Vertigo in Hitchcock’s grand oeuvre, and perhaps the nostalgic The Magnificent Ambersons over Citizen Kane. But it didn’t matter. The consensus was somehow not troubling in spite of one’s own preferences.
The choice of Jeanne Dielman in the latest poll is, however, radically different. To my mind, it reflects a change that was predicted by many but is still somehow surprising. How an awareness of the totality of film history and the romance and excitement of film going has made way for what is virtually an experimental film with modernist storytelling presents one with a new situation.
Jeanne Dielman is almost two and a half hours long, and its slow pace is heavy viewing for many spectators to this day. It has none of the innovative fireworks of Citizen Kane; none of the emotional quality of desperate lives achingly depicted in Bicycle Thieves; none of the dizzying blend of fantasy and reality in Vertigo that gave this tale of obsession a disturbing psychological density.
The term frequently used to explain its ascent to the top is that it is symptomatic of “woke culture”. Or, it is attributed to a new zeitgeist that rejects male-dominated and Eurocentric older film culture – a consequence perhaps of recent phenomena such as the Me Too or Black Lives Matter movements. I happen to broadly agree with this perception. Jeanne Dielman is a great film but is it “the greatest”? My answer, for the moment, is no.
One’s choice of the best ever artworks is possibly determined by an individual’s personal history and taste and one’s opinion about their significance in the history of the art form one is talking about. The widening of the poll base has quite obviously included newer generations of younger, more politically conscious and ethnically diverse film professionals.
This is good. But, to my mind, the practice of making quotas for representing women filmmakers, ethnic and other minorities and “lesser” genres such as horror films seems to have prevailed as much as aesthetic judgement and film historical standards.
For every decade since 1972, I looked forward to the results of this poll. Some of the films in each decennial list were among my own favourites. But this year’s Top Ten (and even more so the complete list of the Top 100 films) is at the greatest variance with my own choices.
The inclusion of Wong Kar-wai’s profoundly moving In the Mood for Love among the Top Ten is a validation of my own enthusiasm for the film, as also the fact that Tokyo Story and 2001: A Space Odyssey are still up there. But what about the demotion of La Regle du Jeu, Battleship Potemkin, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and 81/2? Change is inevitable, but still…..
The world of film culture and criticism has changed. My secret wish – as I keenly anticipated this year’s poll – was that Toyko Story would rise to the top. For perhaps there is no wiser exploration of family relationships and the cycle of life in the cinema than this transcendent Yasujiru Ozu masterpiece. And as an Indian – if asked – I would vote for at least one of our masterworks such as Vishnupant Damle and Sheikh Fattelal’s Sant Tukaram (1936), Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957), Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar (1958), Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) or Mani Kaul’s Siddheshwari (1989).
For these films represent the best that is in India’s cinema. Would I too, in a sense, then be following a kind of quota system? Not really; for my main criterion would still be the artistic expression and staying power of the film. It is not just that these films carry the weight of my memory and Indian heritage; they are, by any standard, among the greatest films ever made.
If I may, I will end with my own list of the Ten Greatest Films. My qualifications – such as they are – are that I have been a film teacher, archivist and been welcomed at many film festivals, juries and film archives. But how much does this matter when it comes to a personal choice? My list:
1. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (FW Murnau, 1927)
2. La Regle du Jeu (Jean Renoir, 1939)
3. The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin, 1940)
4. The Flowers of St Francis (Roberto Rossellini, 1950)
5. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
6. Ugetsu Monogatari ( Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)
7. Jalsaghar (Satyajit Ray,1958)
8. Pierrot le Fou (Jean Luc-Godard, 1965)
9. Close Up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)
10. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
These films have taught me many things. Among these lessons are how best to live and how to accept one’s mortality. Cinema is an an art form that is both classic and modern, and one which delights both in reality and in illusion. I have rejoiced in its embrace for a whole lifetime. It has nourished and enriched me beyond measure.
I look forward to the next poll in 2032.